When encountering panhandlers

Friends sometimes ask me what do when they encounter “homeless people” panhandling on the subway or street. Should they give money? Should they feel guilty about not giving?

I think it’s up to each individual to make that decision for themselves (so do other homeless advocates). I also inform my friends that not everyone asking for money is homeless. I have run into a few of my housed clients on the subway or the street before. Personally, I think your money would go further if you donated to a homeless services agency or a food bank. You could save up the money you'd otherwise hand out dollar-by-dollar to individuals and instead donate larger sums to the organizations working for homeless and poor people. Here are a few organizations to check out:

Now the guilt question. I don't think we need to feel guilty about not giving money to each individual who asks for it, but I think we probably should feel guilty that anyone in our rich-as-hell city needs to ask for money to survive. Every single day, I encounter panhandlers on the subway and it really sucks. I am crammed in this uncomfortable tube, the doors open and a person enters asking for money or food. Now I’m forced to consider social inequities, discrimination, mistreatment and indifference. I feel helpless. 

What if society ensured that everyone had what they needed to survive and thrive: a home, healthy food, medical care, mental health care, substance use treatment, jobs. What if we ended homelessness? What if we guaranteed permanent housing to all people? What if we valued social service organizations and budgeted enough federal, state and city money to enable them to serve those in need?

Maybe the best question is, How can we answer those other questions?

To start, I think we can identify some worthy organizations and donate money to them (not old crappy clothes, not boxes of pasta – money). Next, we can encourage our lawmakers to actually talk about poverty and homelessness. We can educate ourselves about solutions to homelessness (like MORE HOUSING and MORE HOUSING VOUCHERS). And we can elect leaders who will seriously work toward those solutions. 

Think of it this way: We'd sure have a more comfortable subway ride. 

Overpowering our convenient, default thought-processes

What did he do become homeless – What bad decisions? What drugs?

That is often still my first impulse when encountering a homeless person. I default to blaming the individual for his or her circumstances. And I’m a social worker!

I know that I’ve been conditioned to respond like that. I think we all have. It’s convenient and it offers a pat, comforting explanation for someone else’s horrible, complicated situation – They did it to themselves. Phew. Thus we cling to the easy narrative.  

It takes some education and experience to override that programming. I say “override” instead of “deprogram” because we can’t get rid of old neural pathways, we can only build newer, stronger, more appropriate ones that overpower the regressive, untenable ones.

The new, stronger pathway enables us to understand homelessness as a complex social problem that screws individuals, not an individual problem that inconveniences society.

I met a formerly homeless man the other day who told me he became homeless after years of "drinking, smoking weed and doing the wrong thing." For years, his brief, rehearsed story has likely served as a simple explanation to satisfy others.

How the hell does drinking and smoking weed explain homelessness? We all drink, smoke weed and do the wrong thing. Everyone of my friends and I would be homeless if all it took was binge-drinking. But we’re not homeless because we all have families with money [a safety net], an expectation of success [the benefit of the doubt] and a society set up to swaddle and coddle us [power].

It’s just a lot easier to tap into the narrative of ‘“irresponsibility” through substance abuse to explain homelessness. Dig a little beyond the superficial story to consider the real causes of homelessness and it gets depressing and uncomfortable.

That man could easily say, “I became homeless because society doesn’t consider housing a human right. My family was poor so I did not inherit wealth. I worked – I worked very hard for many hours – but did not earn a living wage. My income did not keep pace with my rent and the cost of living in the most expensive city in the country. When I could no longer afford to rent my apartment, I had to leave. I could not find another affordable apartment because thousands of people are trying to get the same tiny number of affordable housing units. I became homeless. I drank and smoked weed more when I became homeless because it was a cheap way to ease my anxiety and mood, which worsened because not having a home is fucking hard.”

This New Year’s Eve, I propose that we all resolve to overcome our convenient, default thought-processes when we consider homelessness. We can shake ourselves back to reality and logic when we catch ourselves tapping into the tired narratives that comfort us (“That person deserves to be homeless”).

To more easily accomplish this, we can start with the premise that housing is a human right and everyone deserves a home, regardless of their decisions (and then with the fact that we don’t even know what their decisions were).



Maybe it seems like homelessness is a superficial wound that affects only the very poorest people while the rest of us thrive, unscathed. But, actually, homelessness infects society to its core: 

  • It strains our economic resources (spot-treatment for homelessness is expensive).
  • It disintegrates our quality of life (it sucks to encounter the street-homeless whose very existence forces us to confront systemic failures and random inequities).
  • And it challenges our very identity as caring individuals. If we were caring people, wouldn’t we do something to end homelessness and uphold the human right of housing?

Fortunately, homelessness is preventable, treatable and curable. And ending homelessness is cost-effective.

"We can end homelessness in a matter of years, not decades," Care for the Homeless Policy Director Jeff Foreman told me. "It would cost less to end homelessness than we’re spending right now to not end homelessness."

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, more than 127,652 unique people, including more than children, slept in a New York City shelter in FY2016. The 2016 Mayor's Management Report (p. 96) found that the average cost of housing a single adult homeless person in a shelter was $94.57 in FY2016. The average daily number of homeless adults in NYC shelters  FY2016 was 12,727. That's $1,203,592.39 per day and $439,311,222.35 for the year.

The average cost of housing a family with children was $120.22 and the average number of families with children in the shelter 12,089. That's $1,453,339.58 per day and $530,468,946.70 for the year.

All together, that's about $1 billion a year to NOT provide permanent housing.

There is no free alternative, but there are ways to satisfy our humanitarian impulse to house homeless AND our straight-up financial interests at the same time. It's pretty easy: PROVIDE HOUSING TO PEOPLE WITHOUT HOUSING.

One solution is to develop more supportive housing units to provide housing for homeless people. Supportive housing is permanent housing with social service and mental health support on site.  It's not a hand-out; tenants pay rent – typically 30% of their income with Section 8 providing the additional 70%. Individuals who earn more money, pay a higher proportion of their rent. Some pay 100%. (I had a tenant who served in the military for more than thirty years. He earned more from his pension than I earned from my job. Yet he had experienced homelessness. He paid the market-rate rent, but he valued the social services and the camaraderie within the building).

An oft-cited 2014 report by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Human Resources Administration and Office of Mental Health stated that supportive housing saves taxpayers $10,100 per person just the first year that the people are housed, which is generally the least stable year for people in permanent housing. 

That report doesn't even account for the various secondary economic benefits of supportive housing, such as how housing stability promotes employment and educational attainment or how the individuals living in permanent housing become active consumers in their neighborhoods.

Homelessness isn't just a tragedy, it's an unnecessary financial burden we can solve right now.